Ryan and Jen Phillips-Page played instrumental roles in establishing African Leadership Foundation, assuming numerous ad-hoc positions that included fundraising, logistics, recruitment, maintenance, and more. The couple have maintained their firm connection to the ALA community, and reflect on the birth and evolution of one of Africa’s leading educational institutions…
How did you first connect with ALA; where did it all start?
RYAN I began to volunteer as ALA’s first staff member in July 2005 in New York City, and originally connected to Chris Bradford through my father (who is South African) and Chris’ cousin (Andrew Miller). I helped Chris and Fred network to raise money, review/revise the ALA logo and marketing materials, conducted research to identify potential donors (individuals and foundations), and assisted with the first three annual fundraisers in NYC from 2006 to 2008. I also volunteered to evaluate prospective teachers and students from the US before Jen and I moved to South Africa in June 2008 to help get the campus ready to receive students and teachers.
JEN At first, Ryan, and sometimes myself, would do research on people who could be potential supporters and Ryan was also introducing Fred and Chris to his contacts through Goldman Sachs where he was employed at the time. Then in 2007, Ryan helped organize a fundraiser for ALA in NYC that was very successful. The next year, when the school was scheduled to open, Ryan reached out to Chris and Fred to find out if there was someway he could help. On June 9, 2008 we were on a plane to South Africa.
What was your original role – and how did it evolve?
RYAN I originally managed procurement processes for the campus, and it ended up turning into a Director of Facilities and Operations role. After procuring items for the campus, I began to manage the maintenance, kitchen, and security staffs, and negotiated contracts with new vendors and suppliers. I also managed construction and renovation projects on the campus. On the side, I continued to support their fundraising efforts however I could, which resulted in fundraising of over $300k through individuals, foundations, and events over my tenure with the organization.
JEN When we arrived in South Africa, I had no official role. I didn’t even know what I was going to do until Fred asked Ryan if I was available to help. At first, I was doing administrative work: I coordinated with the immigration agency and the teachers to make sure their paperwork for their visas was in order before sending it through to the embassy. I also worked with the travel agency making the flight bookings for the teachers.
My first big project was to find housing for the incoming faculty. Being a newcomer to Johannesburg and getting used to driving on the other side of the road – and on the other side of the car – I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I worked with a few real estate agents who helped me identify different properties near the campus, and became very familiar with the suburbs surrounding the campus as well as Gumtree, which I used a lot.
I also coordinated car hires for all the volunteers. Before the students’ arrival, I worked with Anabel to design a uniform; one of the tops was actually designed from a top I had bought from the GAP! Then I was tasked with finding a uniform company, and that’s when I found Lee (Barker, who still provides this service). Over the course of the two years I was at ALA, I never had an official role; I just helped out wherever they needed me.
What were the challenges – and breakthroughs?
RYAN There were constant challenges, and most of them were related to insufficient funds to execute the projects that I needed to deliver; we needed to build a world-class campus with meagre funds. Students and teachers were very clearly disappointed with the state of our campus infrastructure, and had a lot of demands to make the campus work for them. On the other side of the equation, it was challenging to negotiate with contractors and vendors to deliver their critical services at deeply discounted prices, and make them wait for extended periods of time to receive their payments.
JEN: One of the big challenges at that time was money. We completed different projects at the school a little bit at a time. Unfortunately, the first students had to live through it, as we couldn’t finish everything before their arrival so it did get a bit frustrating. Uniforms were another challenge. The goal was to have the students’ uniforms ready when they arrived. I quickly found out that was not realistic. We tried to have them send in their measurements with the rest of their school documentation, however, I noticed that a lot of the measurements did not make sense and it just wasn’t going to get done before their arrival. So we properly measured them as soon as they arrived and they finally got their uniforms in October/November.
The most rewarding breakthrough moment came when we managed to graduate our inaugural class of ALA students, and most of them were going to excellent universities with incredible financial aid packages. Once that happened I knew that ALA was on solid ground and would succeed in the long run.
What are your highlights of that first year?
RYAN The day the students first arrived on campus; it was surreal to meet the students that we dreamed about for 3 years, and was incredibly rewarding. William Kwamkwamba get-togethers were especially inspirational. ALA graduation day for those inaugural students was another remarkable day.
JEN: Since there was only one class, we got to know the students really well. The peacocks? Everywhere… Gavin was living on campus in a flat and Fred’s friend was donating her furniture that was going to go in his flat. Since Ryan and I drove a bakkie, we went to collect it. We managed to get huge pieces of furniture onto the bakkie and back to campus. We have a picture of it. Lol! Another memory is a Fun Day we had on campus; we rented inflatable water slides for the students and they had a blast. Eddie Ndopu, who was in the first class, just watched from his wheelchair until Gavin picked him up, held him tight and took him down the slide with him. Eddie had a huge smile on his face.
Looking back over the years: what are your thoughts and feelings on how ALA itself has grown?
RYAN I’m honored to have played a meaningful role in the development of ALA. ALA has already fundamentally changed the trajectory of numerous lives who will undoubtedly contribute to the betterment of Africa. The campus is looking better than ever, the success stories are countless (and well chronicled!), and its most generous supporters will never let it fail. I’m excited about what’s in store for the future – and I look forward to contributing however I can.
JEN I am very proud of what ALA has accomplished over the years and feel privileged to have been a part of it from the beginning. I think their mission is very important to the African continent.
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